As the Trump administration draws up war plans against Iran over what it says are threats to US troops and interests, a senior British military official told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he saw no increased risk from Iran or allied militias in Iraq or Syria.
A few hours later, the US Central Command issued an unusual rebuke. The remarks from the British official — Major General Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy commander of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State — run “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”
The rare public dispute highlights a central problem for the Trump administration as it seeks to rally allies and global opinion against Iran.
Over the past year, Washington has said Iran is threatening US interests in the Middle East, encouraging aggression by Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, shipping missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen and allowing its naval forces to behave belligerently in the Persian Gulf.
All are concerns that have been levelled against Iranian forces for years.
“We are aware of their presence clearly and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because of the environment we are in,” Mr Ghika said.
But he said, “No, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”
Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington — where John Bolton, the national security adviser, has prodded President Donald Trump into backing Iran into a corner.
One U.S. official said the new intelligence of an increased Iranian threat was “small stuff” and did not merit the military planning being driven by Mr Bolton. The official also said the ultimate goal of the yearlong economic sanctions campaign by the Trump administration was to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the United States.
Since May 2018, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the major powers agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, reimposed punishing sanctions on Tehran, demanded that allies choose between Iranian oil and doing business in the U.S. market, and declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organisation.
And on Tuesday, the State Department appeared on the verge of ordering a partial evacuation of the US Embassy in Baghdad as a heightened security measure, according to people familiar with the plans.
The anti-Iran push has proved difficult even among the allies, which remember a similar campaign against Iraq that was led in part by Mr Bolton and was fuelled by false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts this week to recruit European countries to back the administration’s steely posture on Iran are being received coolly.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, called for “maximum restraint” after meeting on Monday in Brussels with Mr Pompeo, a proponent of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Iraqi officials said they were sceptical of the US intelligence that Mr Pompeo presented last week on a surprise trip to Baghdad. Mr Pompeo said the threat was to US “facilities” and military personnel in Iraq.
In September, Trump administration officials blamed Shiite militias with ties to Iran for firing a few rockets into the area near the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Basra. There were no injuries, but Mr Pompeo ordered the Basra Consulate closed.
Privately, several European officials described Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo as pushing an unsusnewpecting Trump through a series of steps that could put the United States on a course to war before the president realises it. While Trump has made no secret of his reluctance to engage in another military conflict in the Middle East, and has ordered US troops home from Syria, his secretary of state and his national security adviser have pushed a maximalist hard-line approach on Iran. Mr Bolton, in particular, has repeatedly called for US military strikes against Tehran.
Officials said Trump was aware that Mr Bolton’s instinctual approach to Iran could lead to war; aides suggested that the president’s own aversion to drawn-out overseas conflicts would be the best hope of putting the brakes on military escalation.
A spokesman for Mr Bolton declined to comment.
The Trump administration is looking at plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack US forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, The New York Times reported. On Tuesday, Trump dismissed that as “fake news.” “We have not planned for that,” he told reporters.
But he immediately added, “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Some of the president’s critics accept that Iran continues to engage in what US officials call “malign behaviour,” be it in Yemen, Syria or the Palestinian territories. But they blamed the administration for aggravating the standoff with Tehran..
“This is a crisis that has entirely been manufactured by the Trump administration,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
He pointed to Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, coupled with the administration’s failure to get any other nations to do so. “None of the other signatories to the deal were persuaded by the case the U.S. was making,” Nasr said. “And that is because this administration’s policy on Iran, at a fundamental level, does not have credibility.”
That lack of trust has proved to be a major obstacle in convincing allies that Iranian behaviour in the region warrants military action.
And while acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has carefully cultivated a more acquiescent stance to Mr Bolton’s demands than did his predecessor, Jim Mattis, many military officials and congressional representatives worry about the escalating tensions. Mr Mattis had balked at Mr Bolton’s request for military options against Iran after the rockets landed on US. Embassy grounds in Baghdad.
“Mr Bolton did the same with President George W. Bush and Iraq,” Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., an Iraq War veteran, said in a statement last week. “As someone sent four times to that misguided war, I have seen the costs of Mr Bolton’s disastrous foreign policy in a way he never will — firsthand, and at the loss of thousands of American lives.”
One big worry is that the Trump administration has issued the most expansive type of warning to Iran, without drawing specific red lines. That has increased the chance of a military conflict over misinterpretations and miscalculations.
In a statement this month, Mr Bolton outlined vague terms of what appeared to be conditions for military engagement, responding to what he said were “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
He said “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” And he warned that the Trump administration was “fully prepared to respond to any attack” by the Iranian military or a “proxy” — one of the Middle East’s many Shiite militias that are supported by Iran.
Those militias often do not operate under direct command-and-control from Iran, and they have varying levels of allegiance to the Iran military.
In Yemen’s civil war, the Houthis are Shiite rebels who oppose a government backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni nations. The Houthis’ ties to Iran are murky. But the Trump administration labels the rebels as Iranian proxies, and Mr Bolton’s statement left open the possibility that a Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia or the UAE — both US allies — could set off a US military assault against Iran.
The hard-line tactics against Iran could backfire in two ways, said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group. If the sanctions crush its economy, then Iran could act with less restraint, he said. And if the sanctions do not work well, then some US officials will advocate military action, a move that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are likely to support.
“There will be people in Washington who will push for limited kinetic action against the Iranian regime to cut it down to size,” he said.
In statements, Iranian leaders have reacted with both belligerence and diplomatic restraint to a series of US actions that they see as provocative. In a tweet Tuesday, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, ridiculed Mr Bolton and three anti-Iran foreign leaders in the Middle East as a “B Team.”
In interviews in April, I predicted “accidents”—not because I'm a genius— but because #B_Team is so brazenly following @AmbJohnBolton's script (https://t.co/beCZByEaCT).
After all, half of B-Team were co-conspirators in disastrous Iraq war.
Stark reminder https://t.co/ksCi9ntp85 pic.twitter.com/hpkGaap8aC
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif)
“In interviews in April, I predicted ‘accidents’ — not because I’m a genius — but because #B_Team is so brazenly following @AmbJohnBolton’s script,” Zarif said. “After all, half of B-Team were co-conspirators in disastrous Iraq war.”
The New York Times